David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow is one of several successful plays he has written about the business world. Filled with Mamet’s trademark, rapid-fire dialogue, Speed-the-Plow focuses on the ruthless nature of Hollywood and the movie industry. Mamet was familiar with this environment, having written several produced screenplays in the 1980s. The title Speed-the-Plow is derived from an old English farming phrase which was used to confer good luck and a swift and profitable ploughing. Critics and scholars have speculated that Mamet might be comparing Hollywood’s fast pace and profit motivations to this past, for in the play cold business fact wins out over artistry and idealism.
Speed-the-Plow was first produced on Broadway in the Royale Theater, opening on May 3, 1988. The play was a box office success even before opening night, in part because pop star and cultural icon Madonna played the role of Karen, the temporary secretary. Advanced ticket sales exceeded $1 million. To many critics, Madonna’s celebrity made an ironic comment on the play’s action. Like many of Mamet’s plays, Speed-the-Plow highlights men and their complicated relationships. Mamet has been routinely criticized for writing over-simple, objectified female characters over the course of his career, and this play received similar accusations regarding Karen.
Critics gave Speed-the-Plow generally good reviews during its Broadway production. Mamet had won the Pulitzer Prize for drama several years earlier for his 1984 play Glengarry Glenn Ross, which also focuses on men in the business world. Many critics saw similarities between Speed-the-Plow and Glengarry Glenn Ross and found the latter superior. Still, most praised Mamet’s use of dialogue and taunt plotting. Critics disagreed on the value of the play in the Mamet canon. Some saw it as a variation of Mamet’s business dramas and therefore unoriginal, while others found deep meaning in the seemingly superficial depiction of two Hollywood producers looking for a big break.